Salute the sun at temples, observatories, and other radiant structures that align with the equinoxes and solstices.
Since prehistoric times, humans have hailed the sun for bringing them light, warmth, and abundant harvests. Architects around the globe have paid tribute to the sun by building impressive monuments that precisely mark seasonal changes in daylight. Ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Inca had remarkably advanced knowledge of the stars, which they used to align their temples with the solstices and equinoxes.
Every year around June 21st, people living in the Northern Hemisphere mark the summer solstice or longest day of the year. Simultaneously, those down south experience the winter solstice, which is when the sun takes the shortest path through the sky. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun shines on the hemispheres with an equal amount of light, creating days and nights of nearly equal duration all over the planet. Witness the changing of the seasons at one of these worldwide sites that honor the star of our solar system.
Top Picks for You
Ise Grand Shrine
WHERE: Ise, Japan
Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, the powerful and compassionate sun goddess. Every 20 years, Ise Grand Shrine’s wooden bridge, torii gates, and buildings are destroyed and rebuilt according to the centuries-old spiritual tradition. Only priests and members of the Imperial family can enter the inner shrine, which houses Amaterasu’s divine mirror. Legend has it that the sun goddess herself gave the mirror to Japan’s first emperor.
INSIDER TIPLook for roosters roaming the grounds: the birds are considered the divine messengers of the goddess.
The Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Khafre
WHERE: Giza, Egypt
The pyramids of Giza have stood under the desert sun for centuries, yet Egyptologists are still unraveling their mysteries. The Pyramid of Khafre was built around 2570 BCE and is located behind the Great Sphinx, a human-lion deity associated with the sun. If you stand in front of the mythical creature during the spring equinox, you can watch the sunset into its right shoulder. Then, the glowing rays illuminate the south side of Khafre’s pyramid and merge the shadows of the two monuments, symbolizing their union.
WHERE: Macchu Picchu, Peru
Several of Macchu Picchu’s magnificent structures are dedicated to the sun, which the Inca worshiped and considered to be their ancestor. The Temple of the Sun was built in a semi-circle, with windows positioned to capture the light. During the summer and winter solstices, the sunrise casts shadows on the central rock where ritual sacrifices took place. Macchu Picchu also has a giant Intihuatana Stone, or “The Hitching Post of the Sun,” which points right at the sun during the winter solstice. At noon during the vernal or autumnal equinox, sunbeams hit the stone at an angle that casts no shadow.
INSIDER TIPBook tickets well in advance if you want your visit to coincide with a solar event, as these slots sell out quickly.
WHERE: Jaipur, India
In the 18th century, Maharaja Jai Singh II constructed several outdoor observatories to accurately chart the movements of celestial bodies. Jaipur’s Jantar Mantar consists of 19 large and bizarre-looking instruments. One marks the summer and winter solstices, while another measures the sun’s zenith distance, declination, and diameter. Jantar Mantar also has the world’s largest stone sundial, which stands 27 meters tall and looks like a stairway to heaven bisected by a curve. The Samrat Yantra measures time using the shadow cast by the sun, and it’s so immense that you can see the shadow moving at 1mm per second.
Australian Standing Stones
WHERE: Glen Innes, Australia
Erected in 1991, the Australian Standing Stones pay tribute to the Celtic people who moved down under and contributed to the country’s culture. The monument consists of 24 standing stones that function as a calendar. Shadows cast by the sun mark the passage of the months, as well as the solstices and equinoxes. During these special days, visitors gather to celebrate with music and rituals, much like the ancient Celts did.
WHERE: Wiltshire, England
Around 3000 BCE, the Neolithic people constructed the mystifying Stonehenge, which may have been a burial ground or ceremonial site. Archaeologists discovered that the megaliths were arranged in a circle to line up with the movements of the sun. At the summer solstice, early risers can see the sun climb up from behind the Heel Stone. During the winter solstice, thousands descend upon Stonehenge to see the sunset align with the central altar and slaughter stone.
Monument to the Sun
WHERE: Zadar, Croatia
Contemporary architects continue to be inspired by the sun. In 2008, Nikola Bašić unveiled his high-tech Monument to the Sun on the Zadar waterfront. Consisting of 300 glass plates, the flat blue circle spans 22 meters, with solar modules that absorb light and transform it into energy. After dark, the monument glows with rainbow colors, illuminating the harbor with a dazzling light show.
Wat Arun Temple
WHERE: Bangkok, Thailand
One of Bangkok’s most beloved temples is dedicated to Aruna, the Hindu god of the rising sun. Wat Arun is known as the “Temple of Dawn” because of how its porcelain mosaic towers glow under the sunrise. At night, the 17th-century temple glistens under golden spotlights, and its main spire or prang casts a mirror image on the Chao Phraya River.
WHERE: Yucatan, Mexico
The Maya built Chichén Itzá around the year 1000, designing the city to correspond with the sun’s seasonal movements. At every equinox, shadows form on the steps of the famous step-pyramid, El Castillo. The changing position of the light makes it seem as if a snake is wriggling down the stairs. (Some believe this represents the Mayan feathered serpent god, Kukulkan.) During the summer solstice, the pyramid’s north and east faces light up while the other sides are shaded, making it look as if it is split in two.
WHERE: Utah, USA
American artist Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” are located in a remote valley of Utah’s Great Basin Desert. Her abstract work is made of four enormous concrete cylinders lying on their sides in an open cross, surrounded by miles of sand. Visitors can take photos standing inside the nine feet high pipes, and admire the light and shadow effects on the industrial material. Every summer and winter solstice, the tunnel openings align exactly with the rising and setting sun.
INSIDER TIPThe “Sun Tunnels” are 45 minutes away from the nearest town, in an area that has spotty phone reception and is prone to flash floods. The Dia Art Foundation recommends that visitors come prepared with a full tank of gas, food, water, and sun protection.
WHERE: Goseck, Germany
Goseck Circle is one of the oldest solar observatories on the planet, dating back to around 4900 BCE. The archaeological remains consist of large concentric rings dug into the ground, with two gates cut into the outermost circle. Every winter solstice, the sun rises in alignment with one gate and sets behind the other. The sun’s path during the summer solstice is also marked by gaps in the enclosure. Researchers suggest that in Neolithic times, Goseck Circle may have been used as a farming calendar.
WHERE: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, whose name translates to “protector of the sun.” The solar god, Lord Vishnu, is honored throughout the temple including in the central sanctuary. Many of Angkor Wat’s structures were designed to fit with solar cycles, such as bas-reliefs and corridors that light up with the solstices. During the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun rises right over the peak of the main temple tower, creating a phenomenal visual effect.
WHERE: New Mexico, USA
Now a national historic park, Chaco Canyon was a center of Puebloan culture between the 10th and 12th centuries. The Chacoans built sandstone structures and carved designs into rock, which followed the path of the sun and other celestial bodies. A spiral sandstone petroglyph is known as the Sun Dagger because it is cut with a beam during the summer solstice. A smaller whorl sits next to it, capturing light during the spring and fall equinoxes.
Ritan Park Temple of the Sun
WHERE: Beijing, China
In the late Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Emperor built a resplendent altar for ritual sacrifices to the sun. The Temple of the Sun was destroyed over the years, but it was restored in the 1980s as part of Beijing’s public Ritan Park. A walkway leads to a colorful 15-meter long mural, which depicts joyful celebrations to the sun god Jinwu. Behind it is the rebuilt altar, centered on a red platform that symbolizes the sun.
The Sun Temple
WHERE: Konark, India
India has several solar temples, but the most famous one is located in Konark and is devoted to the Hindu sun god, Surya. The 13th-century place of worship has a triangular stone roof that is carved to look like Surya’s chariot, complete with wheels and horses. Much of the interior is in ruins, but a towering sculpture of the sun god still smiles over the sanctuary. The temple also contains a wheel carved out of stone: it serves as a sundial, with the eight spokes dividing the day into three-hour periods.